Paddy Davitt: Hold the reins tightly. The final fences are approaching
PUBLISHED: 14:15 10 March 2019 | UPDATED: 10:40 11 March 2019
Pertinent of Daniel Farke to slap the blinkers on Norwich City in the Championship title race on the eve of the Cheltenham Festival.
Farke had just endured rather than enjoyed the Canaries’ tough 1-0 Championship win over an assured Swansea City when he was asked how that altered the mindset of title rivals Leeds and Sheffield United.
The implication being City had got in the first blow on Friday night to open up a sizeable points gap to both, ahead of their own weekend assignments.
It was also another illustration of the subtle shift in the mood and expectancy swirling around Norwich, which is inevitable now, given their superb consistency in performance and more crucially at this stage of the season, results.
From defying the odds to actually join the promotion race it is now a question of when rather than if for some, which has forced Farke to deflect questions in certain quarters about drawing up plans for the Premier League.
No wonder he was so keen to use his pre-match press call to stress nothing has been achieved and dreaming remains the preserve of fans who hailed him again at the full-time whistle on Friday.
But I digress. Farke’s response to what this latest win did to the league table, or to the state of mind of title rivals, was to dismiss both.
There was a throwaway line about checking the table on Monday evening, once the dust had settled, but he reiterated again he has been down this path many times in his coaching career and the biggest lesson was focusing on the task at hand and the elements he can control.
That means picking the right team and beating the opponent next in line. Swansea now becomes Hull City on Wednesday, and you can be sure Farke will again stress complacency is the biggest danger and what both Leeds and Sheffield United do when they play again on Tuesday has no material bearing.
But to remain in such an air-tight bubble feels increasingly constraining.
Farke may have opted only for a cursory glance or two at what unfolded across the rest of the Championship at the weekend, but after Bristol City, Derby County, Middlesbrough and West Brom all failed to muster a win the field has now narrowed to two from three for automatic promotion.
Darren Moore paid with his job, following another lacklustre home draw against Ipswich Town, that palpably failed to treat the festering wounds from a damaging defeat to the Blades and a humiliation at Elland Road.
Who the Baggies’ turn to will be fascinating, but with games running out and an 11-point gap to the Canaries it would take a recovery of Foinavon proportions to secure automatic promotion.
Cheltenham’s famous uphill finish has tested the best steeplechasers and hurdlers in England and Ireland every March. Only the finest horses prevail. It is a battle of wills as much as equine talent; a true test of character for horse, jockey and trainer.
Norwich may have rounded the turn for home in front but the manner both Leeds and Sheffield United responded on Saturday underlines peering beyond the finish line at what might be on the horizon is folly.
The margins are wafer-thin. Four points separate the trio after 36 games and seven months of combat. City and Leeds have the same number of league wins, Sheffield United one less.
The Blades boast the same impressive goal difference as Farke’s men. Leeds trail by five in that regard, but the manner they cut loose against West Brom recently suggests even that could even up in the space of 90 minutes.
Norwich have the points on the board but a bigger advantage may lie in a healthy squad. Patrick Bamford awaits the results of scans on a knee scare suffered after notching Leeds’ winner at Ashton Gate.
Top scorer Kemar Roofe has missed the last three weeks with his own knee injury.
City have no such worries at present to their key personnel. Quite the opposite.
How Farke shoehorns the likes of Timm Klose, Grant Hanley, Moritz Leitner, Mario Vrancic, Alex Tettey et al into his starting line up is a vexatious dilemma on one level. But there is another strand that should not be overlooked.
Klose, Hanley and Tettey have that experience to guide those in possession of the shirt living this joy ride for the very first time in their senior careers.
The ability to mask inevitable disappointment at their own limited game time with a soothing word and a supportive shoulder could be priceless in the final furlong.
A collective sense the prize is so much bigger than individual glory can power Norwich up that hill for the final 10 league tussles.